I think what I like best about Joe Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard books is that the duo are poor. Oh, I could say working class or blue-collar, but those suggest a steady job. And where Hap Collins and Leonard Pines live is a depressed corner of East Texas where work is hard to come by.
Mayo sandwiches or whiskey and Nilla wafers serve as meals, and keeping their bellies full and their trucks running are their main concerns—and often what drives them to join in on a scheme or take a few bucks in trade for helping someone out.
Hap’s got a sense of justice—the romantic of the pair—tempered by Leonard’s rough realistic nature. So much crime fiction comes from the middle class, where the fears revolve around losing the good life you have and discovering the criminal world beneath your nose. Hap and Leonard live in that world—where people trying to get by without hurting anyone have to constantly be on their guard for scavengers and hyenas looking for weakness.
The SundanceTV series doesn’t shy from showing it. We meet Hap and Leonard harvesting roses on a farm, on the day they lose their jobs. Every rose has its thorn, all right. That leaves them scrounging for change and coupons to buy one last bag of groceries to hold them over.
James Purefoy (The Following, Rome) plays Hap, and Michael Kenneth Williams (Boardwalk Empire, The Wire) plays Leonard. The two play well off each other, with good chemistry—like nitro and glycerin. When they’re not smack-talking each other, they’re sparring in the barn and spin-kicking each other’s heads off, which translates well from the books.
Hap’s a straight, white liberal who went to prison for draft dodging; Leonard’s a black, gay, conservative Vietnam Veteran. Their friendship, and the frictions of keeping it, is what make these stories great—no matter how well Lansdale writes a crime yarn, an action scene, or damn funny dialogue.
And the show gets that right.
The writers start spinning a couple plates that will play back over the season, beginning with Leonard’s irascible Uncle Chester getting brought over in a police car. Among his transgressions was threatening to shove his cane up the officer’s ass sideways. Leonard helps him home and endures a tirade from his gay-hating relative. When Leonard steps out, Hap makes it clear that he will not tolerate the abuse of his friend, even from an old coot. It’s a good way to start the series.
The story kicks off when Hap’s ex Trudy, played by a radiant Christina Hendricks, stops by to say hello—wanting something, which she always does. Hendricks is a long way from Joan in “Mad Men,” looking every bit the local pageant beauty turned hippie crusader of Trudy. A familiar cast sometimes works against a show, but here they settle comfortably into Texas in the ‘80s, complete with casual bigotry.
Whether Leonard is kicking the ass of some crackheads who hassle his cantankerous old uncle, or Hap is reminiscing of when his father, seconds after dropping the n-word, pulled over in a rainstorm to help a black family with their broken-down car, it rings true. Following Mr. Lansdale on Twitter, he let it be known that he visited the set; I’m not sure if he helped them get it right, but they did.
Trudy spins a tale of lost heist money at the bottom of the Sabine River and a share for helping find it. They take a road trip into the Bottoms, where a small group of hippie radicals have taken over the remains of an abandoned family resort.
We meet Howard, Trudy’s new man, a pony-tailed old hippie still dreaming of revolution, and their compatriots. One, Paco, has a splash of burn scars on his face and always carries a crossbow, while the rest of the gang smokes weed.
The weakness in the story is making the hippies feel real. It’s been nearly 50 years since the Summer of Love, and Howard and company were throwbacks when the book was set, in the mid-‘80s. We know they’re doomed, and the heist money will only hasten that demise.
We get a hint of what’s to come when we meet the Harbingers of Doom for this season, who make short, bloody work of a nosy police officer. Jimmi Simpson, looking like Crispin Glover’s take on Michael Douglas from Falling Down, and his statuesque female partner, sporting stilettos (and heels) and a warrior’s breastplate, bring a taste of the weird that Lansdale’s well known for.
I’m looking forward to watching this murderous couple waltz—okay, maraud—across Texas in their Camaro this season. It’s different, it’s twisted, and it’s way past due. Enough with the endless police procedurals; a good, plain old crime story with regular folks who don’t have P.I. licenses is a welcome change to the landscape, especially one set in the Deep South.
True Detective gave me hope with Season One, but when it became an anthology series and skipped off to second-rate Ellroy, California, it lost most of my interest. Hap and Leonard may never seek Carcosa or spiral into cosmic nihilism, but their plate of Southern-fried bad-assery with a slice of hilarity for dessert certainly satisfies.
Fans of Michael Kenneth Williams like myself will be glad to see him get a major role—playing another gay bad-ass, like his unforgettable Omar from The Wire. I hadn’t seen James Purefoy’s work before, but he nails Hap.
The pilot left me eager for more. When grit is king, it’s a breath of fresh air to get it with a sprinkle of humor throughout.
Thomas Pluck is the author of the World War II action thriller Blade of Dishonor, Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense, and Hot Rod Heart: A Noir Novelette. He is also the editor of the anthology Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT and hosts Noir at the Bar in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, PANK Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Hardboiled, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crimespree, and numerous anthologies, including Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block. You can find him online and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.
Read all of Thomas Pluck's articles for Criminal Element.